So. Paul Ryan will be Mitt Romney’s Vice-Presidential nominee. What do we make of this?
To be honest, I don’t like this move at all, and not just because Paul Ryan is one of those god-awful Republicans who pretends to care about the deficit and freedom but is really only interested in using government to redistribute wealth upward and give wealthy businessmen even more control over the serfs. In my mind, this move just makes absolutely no good political sense.
I’ll start with the obvious stuff:
Foreign Policy. Quick quiz: when was the last time neither candidate on the Republican ticket had any significant military or foreign policy experience? Answer: NEVER. This is literally the first time in the history of the Republican Party that this has occurred. I’m really struggling to put into words the magnitude of this occasion; foreign policy has been the signature issue of the Republican Party ever since Eisenhower. Two generations of Cold War Republicans got themselves elected on the theory that only they – not the wimpy pinko Democrats – could protect America from the Red Menace. George W. Bush’s re-election was premised entirely on the idea that only he – not those wimpy, terrorist-apologizing Democrats – could protect America from al-Qaeda. Obama’s supposed lack of foreign policy acumen was perhaps the most successful attack against him in the 2008 campaign. Legions of political scientists, strategists, operatives, and laymen have echoed the old formulation that Republicans are the strong “father” party to the Democrats’ “mommy.” But now, in 2012, Romney and the Republicans have completely ceded the issue of foreign policy to President Obama. Unbelievable.
In fairness, this election is unlikely to hinge on foreign policy, and it may have been a losing issue for Republicans this cycle anyway; Obama has polled better on the issue and may have had a significant foreign policy victory one or two of you might have noticed last year. Still, a complete abdication of the issue on which Republicans have the biggest natural advantage is shocking.
Budget horribleness. As everyone has pointed out this weekend, the Obama campaign has been trying to hang the extremism of Ryan’s budget proposals on Romney’s neck for this entire campaign. You know the drill with this by now: Ryan’s budgets would completely gut every part of the federal government not devoted to defense and fundamentally alter if not totally destroy the social safety net. Ryan’s budgets would drastically cut taxes for the wealthy – including reducing Romney’s personal tax burden to 0.82% – while raising rates on the bottom 30 percent of earners. Lots of wonks out there have put out detailed takedowns of the inadvisability, impracticability, and actual impossibility of Ryan’s budget plans (Ezra Klein has been particularly active on this topic), but I’m interested in how easy it is to say “Paul Ryan wants to gut Medicare.” It’s one of the most popular government programs in history, it is vitally important to the voters of a number of swing states, and Mitt Romney chose a Vice-Presidential nominee who is best known for wanting to dismantle it. It defies reason.
Swing states. Traditionally, one of the most important jobs of a Vice Presidential candidate is to “deliver” his home state to the top of his ticket. There are a few problems with Ryan attempting to fill this role, however. First and foremost, Wisconsin does not seem to be a winnable state for Romney; though his campaign identified it early as a state they’d like to put in play, polls have consistently given Obama a sizable lead there. Wisconsin (like Missouri or Arizona on the other side of the aisle) is a state that will only be in play in the event of a major wave in Romney’s favor that would carry him to the White House with or without the Badger State by his side, not the sort of state that would be the deciding factor in a nail-biter election. Secondly, Ryan does not have the kind of profile that would help very much even if Wisconsin were in play. As a Representative, he has never run for statewide office., meaning he isn’t particularly well-known at home; Nate Silver found that fully 29% of Wisconsinites didn’t know his name well enough to give a simple favorable/unfavorable impression. The upshot of all this is that Silver projects that adding Ryan to the ticket only helps Romney’s chances of winning Wisconsin by 2.5%, which translates to 0.1% added probability of Romney’s capturing the Electoral College. This is what we in the business call “weak sauce.”
But none of the above reasons represents why I’m truly so perplexed by this Ryan pick. Allow me to explain below.
In my opinion, the GOP had three significant advantages going into this election season: (1) The poor state of the economy; (2) widespread dislike of “Obamacare;” and (3) the so-called enthusiasm gap built by the right’s seething hatred of President Obama. The first of these advantages seems to have been squandered: though both the economy and the perception of the economy remain poor, the Obama team(with a large assist from Romney that I’ll get to shortly) has been very successful in keeping the campaign narrative away from the economy and focused on more peripheral issues. The second advantage has also disappeared; Romney was never the right guy to wage war on Obamacare, and the general public – admittedly still not wholly supportive of the law – seems to have moved on after the Supreme Court upheld it in June. Thus, the only natural advantage remaining to the Republicans was the enthusiasm gap. However, I believe the selection of Paul Ryan will ultimately ruin that advantage too.
This argument may seem counter-intuitive. Every pundit has been talking all weekend about how choosing Ryan is meant to energize the conservative base of the party and quell any doubts about Romney’s commitment to the conservative cause. Ryan is a superstar in the Tea Party-affiliated right; the wonkish budget-slashing true believer who blunts Democratic attacks about Republicans not advancing their own solutions to America’s problems and gives his staffers copies of Atlas Shrugged.
But that frame misses the point. The Republican advantage came not because they were merely enthusiastic; it came because there was an enthusiasm gap. Conservatives were agitated and infectious in their hatred of Obama, while Obama’s supporters were disillusioned, let down, and frustrated by three years of a sluggish recovery and Obama’s rather centrist governance.
But with the prospect of Ryan’s radical budgets gaining a foothold in the White House and potentially becoming law, progressives have a real reason to organize and do their absolute best to keep Obama in office. This election is no longer about who made the latest gaffe or how much Mitt Romney pays in taxes. Now its about saving everything progressives have built over the past 100 years. It’s about preserving the very idea of government as a powerful force for good. The stakes in this election were always high, but now precisely how high those stakes are is laid bare for everyone to see. I think Ryan, more than almost any other candidate Romney could have chosen, will force Democrats into action. Meanwhile, the sort of Republican that gets really excited about Paul Ryan was probably going to turn out against President Obama anyways. Thus, though we will likely see a (slight, in my opinion) uptick in enthusiasm on the right, I expect Ryan’s selection to precipitate an even larger enthusiasm bump on the left, with the overall effect of shrinking the gap between the two sides.
In his speech accepting Romney’s nomination, Paul Ryan had a line that made me stop and reconsider my position that his selection was a bad idea. He said,
Let me say a word about the man Mitt Romney will replace. No one disputes President Obama inherited a difficult situation. And, in his first 2 years, with his party in complete control of Washington, he passed nearly every item on his agenda. But that didn’t make things better.
Whatever the explanations, whatever the excuses, this is a record of failure.
It was a stunningly good line and for a moment, I thought “We’re doomed.”
But then I realized that the line is effective no matter who says it. Rob Portman could have delivered that line. Marco Rubio could have delivered that line. Any Republican in the entire world could have delivered that line. But when those candidates deliver that line, they don’t bring the same baggage that distracts from the line. From the beginning, Mitt Romney’s best strategy has been to sit back, hammer the economy, and hope that economic news stays poor enough to swing things in his direction. Anything, anything, that distracts voters from the fact that the unemployment rate is stubbornly remaining above 8% is a loser for Mitt Romney. Even time spent on foreign policy, the traditional Republican stronghold that I was incredulous about earlier, would have severe opportunity cost. But when the distraction is Ryan’s budget plans, which Republicans all over the country are running away from screaming, the damage to Roney’s message is incalculable.
Basically, the Ryan pick looks like a panic move. It’s been a bad month for Romney in the public polls, and the outlook is even worse if Nate Silver’s data is to be believed. (For the record, the authors of SomeDisagree put full faith in Nate Silver, and have been doing so for a long time). They almost certainly thought that they needed a game changing pick to dramatically shake up the race. I think Paul Ryan will do that, but not in the way Romney wants.
So, who would I have picked, were I Romney? I think I would have gone with Rob Portman of Ohio. He has virtually no national profile, which isn’t great, but also no nationally-known baggage, which means he couldn’t possibly distract from Romney’s message. He won his statewide election in Ohio by 18 points in 2010…and in case you haven’t heard, Ohio figures to be mildly important to Romney’s chances this time around. Nate Silver estimates that Portman’s home state effect would have translated into a 1.9% better chance of Romney becoming President; in my opinion, his ability to keep the campaign on message would have been worth a great deal more than that.
UPDATE: Public Policy Polling just released favorability numbers for independents in Ohio. Romney does poorly with that group, coming in at 34% favorable…but Ryan does even worse, polling at just 32%. Really think Portman would have been the right choice.